‘Bok Cinta’ Project, an Effort to Activate Public Space

Look at Bustaman #2

By Adin


“Apalah artinya renda-renda kesenian, bila terpisah dari derita lingkungan. Apalah artinya berpikir, bila terpisah dari masalah kehidupan. Kepadamu aku bertanya?” (Sajak Sebatang Lisong- WS Rendra).

i’ve been working in the art scene in Semarang for 10 years, and I keep questioning myself: what am i doing in this scene? Doing the network building, program initiating and all. Many times I evaluated myself, I felt restless. Initiate an art project in the city, which is “far” from the funding, infrastructure that’s not running as is it should the art crowds national media coverage and financial stability made me aware that there were a lot of problems emerge, personal and communal in these ten years. Looking back at the past, I still remember how many art projects that sustains. The rests were ornamental.

In the verge of despair, I remember a joke known among art worker; “if Semarang removed from the map, there will be no significant contribution in the national art scene, moreover for the international”. Some friends of mine regarded Semarang as a cluster, the city that only stand by itself and having no relation with others. As a cluster, this city needs to build its own identity and its systems, to fine its faith, base on its need.

I do notice that I belong to the generation who grew up during unstable time; don’t know where to go and don’t know how to bring this city. One thing that we love is the art scene, a small world that we built since we were in college. But the result is different from our expectation. After graduation, some of us decided to leave that small world in the art scene to pursue their own career. It breaks our heart, but we who decided to keep building art scene in Semarang, were rejecting that tradition. We keep build this small world only by the love. We need reasons to go beyond that and then we borrow Afrizal Malna’s word, “everyday anxieties”, to keep struggling in this world. Indeed, art we believe to make better future for our city.

We believe that art could not be separated from its context, as A. Teeuw had said, “a literature could not be separated from its context”. Society could not be separated from its socio-cultural context. To sum up, all social, economic, and political activities will influence both directly and indirectly to societies. For the art scene, we know how the contexts will affect us. For example, lack of government support made artists and stake holders should negotiate and make strategies to keep struggle and be thrive. So to understand the art and art scene in this situation, we need to understand the negotiation and strategies that have been made.

We realize that this negotiation could not be separated from the city that we lived in. We do believe that art, as part of culture, contributed to the city. We know that art could not give all solutions and answers for problems that emerge in the city, but we believe that art could give better opinion. We will contribute to this city through the art. For the rest of us, art is not only the medium, but also the idea.

A Case of Bustaman

“The role of the artists and intellectuals, of course, are not giving praxis solution, but they should make societies aware and remember the cultural dimensions of the problems of the city” (Kusumawijaya, 2011)

During curatorial workshop conducted by Japan Foundation (JF), February 15-28, 2014, an idea to make project in Bustaman came up. The idea could not be separated from curatorial theme offered by JF to explore and to speculate the space as well as to create and to meet new public sphere.

“These curatorial projects is trying to question or explore the spaces that all this time, in term of socio-cultural, defined and puzzled as art spaces, economy, social, public and many more. Try to challenge and engage tension between art space and not art, offer a new experience and expand the public. It will be excited for curatorial project that exhibit artwork that try to deal with even broader public, more various and new outside the traditional and selected art public” (Preface Japan Foundation)

In Semarang there is only one art gallery, Semarang Gallery, which has regular programs. Other galleries are only based on the program that initiated by art communities. From the beginning, I did not interest to make an exhibition in the gallery. Then, based on the curatorial theme offered by JF, I saw that Bustaman was a good place for my art projects. This is not the first time I worked and made an art project in Bustaman. Previously I made ‘Glance at Bustaman‘ in 2013. The aim of this project was to distribute knowledge from and to societies. In this project, we raised a discourse on how a kampong or small village will survive in the future. How kampong is very vulnerable to the city growth which is more building oriented such as mall, apartment, and hotel is also included in the discourse

In the workshop, I met mentors such as Ade Darmawan (director of ruangrupa) and Kamiyama Yukie (Chief Curator, Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art). When I presented my proposal, they gave critical question on the different between my new project and my old project in Bustaman. I answered their question that in this new project, my aim was to spread knowledge about public space, and then I created ‘Bok Cinta Project’. The name of this project is based on hang out place made of brick walls in Bustaman. This ‘Bok Cinta’ is located behind Yulisa Ulfa’s house (Bustaman resident) and directly faced to the MT Haryono Street. To sum up, ‘Bok Cinta’ is a space used by the youths to hang out, meeting each other, and making solidarity among them.


Public Space as the Terrain of Contestation

Discussing the public space, the term is not only about the building, but also about the concept. In the public space, there is a contestation. It is hard to imagine Habermas utopia to make a public space free from values, non-participants, and autonomous to make deliberative democracy system. In fact, a space could not be free from interest.

The term ‘public’ sometimes has double meaning. Sometimes we reduce complexity of the term ‘public’ in societies. This simplification sometimes made urban planning only created and used by the government and private institution. Where is the public exactly? Did the stakeholders thinking about public before they made urban planning? As we know, the policies regarding space never embrace the public itself. The policy only brings profit for those who have the capital. The state and market domination to manage public space never understand, “what does society want?” As for example, in the urban planning made by the government, the cities are divided depending on how much money that the investors has. The state never thought about the people who live in the city. Do we need to change this situation?

Before I answer that question, I would like to borrow the meaning of public space offered by some thinkers. Some geographers said that public can be understood in two ways, as a public sphere or public space. The first belongs to the physical form and second belongs to negotiation space, a contestation locus among elements in society. Though they have different meanings, but still related. Except for Hannah Arrendt, she was not made obvious differences between public sphere and public space. She pointed that there are two kinds of spaces, an agonistic space and an associational space. Agonistic space depends on the competition that needs legitimation. Associational space needs collaborative work in which the participants can make their own consensus and action – interaction. On the ‘sphere’, Arendt added that the aim is not only made the participants ‘behave’. In the open public space such as the road and the park, people are not only meeting, but they are also involved in some economical activities. For Arendt, those meetings were merely behaved, not act. It means that to activate the public is to ask society getting involved to get purpose on their public space. With the complexity of the problems, to convince society to act certain thing is not easy. Conflicts of interest and where the parties are benefited sometimes make other element reluctant to get involved. As for that, intensive communication between elements of society is a prerequisite creation of this condition. This activation was not given by society, but it can be encouraged through social engineering with particular approaches.

So, where is the role of art? Could ‘ Bok Love ‘ project offer to encourage such things?

Making Public Sphere in the Village of Goats

Before we discuss the contribution of this project, let’s take a look at Bustaman first. Bustaman is not ‘common village’ which has spacious land. This kampong, or small village, known by its curry production. Bustaman consists of two neighbor  associations [2]and one citizen  asociation[3], and it belongs to Purwodinatan Village, Central Semarang district. This is Raden Saleh’s ancestral village. In the north there is Central Pekojan, MT Haryono Street in the east, Petudungan Road in the south, and Pekojan as its west border. Bustaman is not as famous as Pecinan or Semarang Chinatown. There are two kampongs in that area, Bustaman and Bustaman Gedong, but ‘Bok Cinta’ is located in Bustaman. There are 330 people live in this kampong and mostly become sellers. There are four ways to reach Bustaman: MT Haryono street from west side and small alley from Bustaman Gedong and central Pekojan street from the North. Not all kinds of cars can enter this kampong because there is old gateway, that retained its authenticity, blocked the way. Bustaman is overcrowding village. Around 300 people are living in a 100 square meter area. In one of the alley, there are ten houses (about 3×8 meters for each house) were occupied by 130 people. Bustaman is different from other kampong or village. There is no good model of housing with wide lands or playground for the kids. People usually interacted and communicated by its inclusive space. We can see people are meeting and circulate in the alleys, musholla[4] terrace, butchering house, Pangrukti Luhur sanitation, or even in the personals space. Imagine how overpopulated it is! As we know, this kind of area is excluded and regarded as problems. Urban planning made by the government considered this area could not give economical values. This is why the state always chose investor than the people, thinking only about the benefit by giving this area to developer. Therefore, the results of this urban planning are the demolition of five kampongs (Morojayan, Petroos, Mijen, Jayenggaten, Basahan) and two kampongs were vanished (Sekayu and Petempen).

Challenge for the artists are reading and making strategy regarding public sphere in this area. This idea, ‘Bok Cinta’ project, fortunately was appreciated by JF and it got opportunity to be presented in Tokyo, Japan, at August 25 to September 8 2014. There were also another’s presentations from other curators from Phillipines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Japan. The title, ‘Bok Cinta’, was chosen after criticized. In the beginning of this project, I had decided to choose 10 artists, mostly from Central Java. The artists and communities were chosen in this program because I saw that they had project based communities before. The artists were challenged to give their own perspective on public sphere activation through their artworks. The aim is to make the artists are not only thinking about the aesthetics, but also to grasped this phenomenon. The artists were expected to make places for exchanging dialog among the people.

Does this project regard as an art activism? In the 1990s there was Mulyono, an artist who made ‘Kesenian Unit Desa’ (Arts in the Village) project which regarded as an example of art activism in Indonesia. His aim was to spread consciousness about art in societies, on how making the people realize that they could do and made artworks. Instead of bringing that knowledge about art to the people, ‘Book Cinta’ took different aim. In this project, the artists were freely to examine their theories and knowledge about art. They could use different approaches and medium to make artworks. In ‘Bok Cinta’, it does not matter if they chose to focus on the different values of the artworks, whether the aesthetics, the meaning, functional values, or others.

When local residents knew that there will be an art exhibition in their village, they were glad and open. They were willing to participate and to make satellite events such as koplo carnival, dark culinary, Teater Lingkar Performance, photos contest, etc. Besides that, the people were also trying to attract the government. They wanted to be seen and hoped the government will make fair urban planning for them. They also destroy some “bok” in order to smooth the alley for visitors.

It seems problematic when we talked about public space in Bustaman. There are 17 sellers use the ‘bok‘ daily. The site that usually used as a border between housing and the alleys were invaded by the sellers so the alleys are getting narrower. The worst is many vehicles are parking in the alley, blocking the access to Bustaman. Knowing this fact, we try to relocate the sellers in front of Al Barokah musholla to butchering house. At first we thought that this relocation will be regarded as imitation from government policy to relocate the sellers in the streets. We were afraid that it will lead conflicts between the project and the people in Bustaman. Fortunately, the local elder from Bustaman convinced us to keep doing the project. We relocated the sellers in the area Petudungan Street, and made this alley as a parking lot. Not only for parking lot, but we also try to ask Bustaman people to make small mosque to be an exhibition site, using people dwelling as karaoke place, and making music concert in front of mosque. Sometimes the people also help announce the festival program by using big speaker from musholla.

In ‘Bok Cinta’ we also made the old butchering house into Small Park as a part to create well public space in Bustaman. Arief Hadinata, one of the artists, made two murals entitled ‘Sociological Concensus Simulation’. Before he made the murals, he asked some people to list their hope if there was someone gave them a land. Their dream will be realized in murals as reminder of their own hopes about their village in the future. Besides Hadinata, there was Haryo Wibowo or Bowo Kajangan who saw that the village is deserted, less plants. He made ‘Green Guerilla,’ consist of bamboo pot hanging on the wall. Bowo works were appreciated because after the exhibition, people agree and commit to make another pot to be hanged in their wall.

Besides that, we changed a place that usually used to store coffin into a small gallery. We tried to reduce its unearthly myth around this building, and the people appreciated this plan and tried to use this place as a reading room. Near the building, people are making a canopy for the local sellers. This alteration is people’s way to make their place better. Seeing the result, it can be seen that ‘Bok cinta’ became interesting approach to make ‘public-access space’. [5] These initiatives need to be reproduced so the people have their own way to advocate and to speak about their problem. As Jane Jacobs had said, “the city will fulfill people need as long as the city is built by the people”. As for that, to build better city needs people’s participation and involvement.

Another result of this project belongs to the artists itself. Gramsci had said that an organic intellectual will try to examine their knowledge to make their own message as the catalyst of change. This project can be seen as the catalyst: does the artist can be called as agent of change? Aesthetically aim is not the important thing in this public art project. Borrowing from Penny Balkin Bach, public art is not an art form. The difference is how this project associated with it socio-cultural background and what kind of negotiation emerge from this project. Bach states further:

Public art can express community values, enhance our environment, transform a landscape, heighten our awareness, or question our assumptions. Placed in public sites, this art is there for everyone, a form of collective community expression. Public art is a reflection of how we see the world—the artist’s response to our time and place combined with our own sense of who we are. (Penny Balkin Bach).

Although this project does not seek solutions for the real problem, but the result is beyond our expectations. The artists and the people were working together to reach one aim, to make Bustaman better. This openness can be seen through our collaboration. Hopefully, ‘Bok Cinta’ can open another collaboration project in the future, not only in the kampong, but also in the bigger area, the city.

We also hope that through this project, the government and the people will work together in the future. People behind ‘Bok Cinta’ were the civics. We realized that to change the condition, we need not only our own hands, but also the one who made policies: the government. We hope that Hendar Prihardi as Semarang Mayor’s will commit to do and to realize his promise. The government has the important role. As Iris Marion said, civil society cannot replace the government’s role. Civil society could only push for it, but could not take the role of the state. Hopefully, the colaboration between goverment and public could go well, in order to obtain various approach to the problem in Semarang

Finally, as the curator, this exhibition and this project are precious for me. I hope the networks were built and lesson that I learnt during the process are not wasted. I do hope that for the future I will have opportunity to do other projects with people from around the world. For me, Run and Learn, New Curatorial Constellation is not only workshop, but also the laboratories, which I could express my idea and working with many people from different background. Thank you Japan Foundation! Arigato Gozaimasu ~



Dzulfadli  Baihaqi,Yudhi.  ‘Apa Itu Ruang Publik?’.  9 April 2015.

Hida, Taura. 9 April 2015. ‘Jurgen Habermas : Demokrasi Deliberatif dan Ruang Publik’.

Kusumawijaya, Marco.  Kota Rumah Kita,, Jakarta: Borneo Publication, 2006

Kusumawijaya, Marco dan Mujtaba Hamdi. ‘Merawat Khalayak dan Ruang Khalayak’. 9 April 2015.

Syukon, Muhammad. 2013. ‘Apartemen dan Mall Mewah Bertebaran’, ‘Perkampungan Mulai Hilang’. Suara Merdeka, Senin 20 Mei 2013.


[1] This poem written by WS Rendra is not translated because the translator realize that it is hard to translate a literary works.

[2] In Indonesian, it is known as ‘Rukun Tetangga’ or RT. (trans.)

[3] In Indonesian, it is known as ‘Rukun Warga’.

[4] Small building or room for Moslem, set aside in a public place for performance of religious duties.

[5] Term offered by Saskia Sassen.

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